Sunday, March 05, 2006

How long is a piece of script?

Or - can you be taught screenwriting?

Well I think that is a two part question. The basics? Absolutely you can be taught format and structure, there are many good books on those subjects. Can you be taught story? According to Robert McKee you can and who am I to argue?

But can you be taught how to make characters live and breathe on the page? To make an audience care? To have a voice that sings out to the reader. That I'm not so sure about.

My sister is a fantastic guitar player. It seems effortless to her. Me, I can scratch a few chords, but no matter how hard I practice I doubt if I will ever be as good as her. She has an affinity to it that I just don't have. A natural gift.

Writing and music have many similarities. When it all comes together it has the power to really move people. But I suspect many songwriters have no idea where their inspiration comes from or why they put the bridge and verse and chorus that way in that key, at that tempo. It just felt right.

Truth be told, I have no real idea how I do what I do or why people pay me for it. I'd make the lousiest teacher in the world. Hands would be raised, questions asked and my ''uummm I don't really know, I just do it' would leave a number of pissed off students demanding their money back.

The nearest I can get to a sensible answer is that maybe my 'it feels right' is pretty close what is actually right. Maybe I have an affinity for it like my sister has for the guitar.

A famous writer when asked what it was about her writing that made her succesful answered ' you don't dig up a flower to see how it grows'

I don't think she was saying you don't look at your work objectively and pull it apart when neccessary. She meant that 'success' simply means you have talent which is being appreciated. Talent is an imponderable. You have it or you don't. But the degree to which you have it may bear little relation to your success. There are many more factors involved. Luck, timing, personality all play a part.

If you have got talent, providing you persevere, you will find success. Don't be discouraged if your first efforts are crap. Most are. Even if you think they are brilliant! I know very few writers who don't look back on their early work with a twinge of embarrassement.

Mark Twain said ' Be prepared to write without payment for five years. If after five years no one wants to pay you, go back to chopping logs'

A touch of irony there but I'm not one for time limits. It takes as long as it takes. There are so many variables involved that you can have many near misses before your first success. But the fact that you are having near misses shows you have talent.

I've read many scripts from new writers over the years. Some are truly horrible. I mean so bad you need a gargle for your brain afterwards. Some are okay. They look like screenplays, they read like screenplays, structure is fine, they make sense. But they don't engage.

Some I've loved. Not many. But some. And that has to do with the writer grabbing me, with character and story and voice. That's nothing to do with 200 midgets on camels appearing on page 2. That's to do with talent and skill shining off the page.

The best advice I can give is to read great scripts. See how the masters do it. Read 'American Beauty' and 'Alien' and 'LA Confidential' and 'Adaptation' and a host of others. There are many web sites where you can download these. Book learning has its place for sure - but immesring yourself in great writing will pay dividends. It may well show you that you have the affinity you need.

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